What I Learned About Life and Writing Onstage with Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed's Brave Enough, A Conversation with Theo Pauline

Photo: Jason Tang

A few weeks ago I did an onstage conversation with Cheryl Strayed here in Seattle about her new book, Brave Enough, a collection of quotes that yield up her trademark no-nonsense wisdom. The entire experience was a Dear Sugar Boot Camp of learning that began the moment Cheryl asked me to do the event (Why would I want to do such a scary thing and yet how could I not want to?) and continued all the way through my preparation (Reading Brave Enough several times in a row alters the molecular structure of your cowardice) and throughout our 1.5 hours onstage.

Here are two of the nuggets of Strayed wisdom I gained from the experience:

Nugget 1: How to Not Let Fear Ruin What Actually Could Be Fun and Joyful

brave enoughAgreeing to do the event meant that for the first time in my life I would be onstage in front of 800 people. Very quickly I decided that I didn’t want this nice opportunity to be a source of dread and anxiety. I  thought about the onstage conversations I’d enjoyed listening to the most, which were invariably the ones in which the interviewer was at ease and the conversation had the intimate quality of friends talking. Even though most of us find public speaking daunting, no one wants to watch the spectacle of anxiety. As audience members, we want to be transported by bold confidence. So my task was to access that confidence pronto. As I was wondering how I might do that, I was reading the galley of Brave Enough and came across this quote from Wild:

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. That nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part it worked. Every time I felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.

What better way to prepare for the event than to apply the wisdom Cheryl shares in the very book we’d be discussing?  I began to tell myself that being afraid wasn’t an option, and I then remembered how during the 2nd episode of Dear Sugar Radio Cheryl had again talked about laying down the law with herself and ruling out the possibility of negative thinking:

“Right before [the movie] Wild premiered… I went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘You are not allowed to think anything negative about your body, your weight, or your looks anymore. If you think those things, push them out of my mind.’”

As I read deeper into Brave Enough, I began to realize that this Just Say No to Bullshit Thinking is actually a crucial refrain throughout Cheryl’s writing, an essential tenet of Sugarism.

I saw it here: “You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself not to feel jealous. I shut down the Why not me? voice and replace it with one that says Don’t be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person.”

And here it was again: “Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.”

And so–fortified by these just-don’t-go-there quotes–I continued to remind myself that nervousness wasn’t an option whenever anxiety about the event started to bubble up. I also started to imagine how I wanted to feel when I was onstage. I wanted to have fun! Sure,  I wanted the audience to enjoy themselves, but I also wanted the event to actually be enjoyable for me. I felt driven to create that enjoyment for myself because there have been many supposedly fun and exciting things throughout my career that I didn’t enjoy because I was anxious. This enjoyment that I would feel onstage would be my chance to make up for all the needless worry I’d put myself through in the past.

cheryl theo besties

In the green room with Cheryl Strayed, my besties, and my younger daughter.

Did all this Brave Enough preparation work? It did. I felt a brief flash of terror as we stood behind the stage’s velvet curtain listening to our introductions, and then I said to myself, “This is the fun night that you’ve been preparing for! You got this!” And then the stage manager said, “Okay, go!” and I did.

Nugget 2: Cheryl Strayed’s Two Questions for Writers Could Save You Years of Wandering Lost in the Wilderness.

Photo: Jason Tang

Photo: Jason Tang

It seems like there was nothing we didn’t talk about during the next hour and a half. We ran the gamut from feminism, Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, grief, fear, and memoir to the female orgasm (yep!). But one of the most memorable and nugget-worthy moments of the evening was when Cheryl talked about the two questions she poses to her writing students.

“The first question I have them answer is ‘What’s the question at the core of your work?'” she said. Then she shared that hers was “How can I live without my mother?” She said that after her students form this first question, she asks them to come up with a second question–a universal one that asks “What question are you trying to answer for others?” Cheryl said that the universal question for her work has been “How do we go on when we’ve lost the essential thing?” The second question, she explained, is how the work becomes not just about the writer but about everyone as “we’ve all– at some point in our lives–lost the essential thing.”

These two questions are the gold I’ve carried away from that evening. I’ve been sharing them with all my writing classes and asking my students to formulate both an individual question and a universal one. When they go around the room and share their two questions, I think about how lucky I was to get to do this event with Cheryl and how the best type of wisdom is the kind you can use right away.

You can listen to the recording of the entire event here. If you want to hear Cheryl talking about the two questions for writers, start at minute 57:00.

Posted in Author Interviews, Cheryl Strayed, Memoirists, More Stuff for Writers | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Sunday Morning Writing Time: August 16th at 10am Pacific

On Sunday August 16th, I’ll be offering a writing prompt webinar called “Sunday Morning Writing Time”  from 10am to 11:15am Pacific Time. During this writing prompt webinar, I will give a series of prompts designed to help you dig deep into your story. The prompts are framed with memoir in mind, but you could also use them for writing fiction. After I give the prompts, we will have a quiet writing time together. Jason Poole, The Accidental Hawaiian Crooner, will be strumming us in and out of the prompts with ukulele.

“Why not just do prompts on our own?” we ask. Good question. I’m not sure why we often avoid starting activities we long to do. But I do know that when I commit to writing with others, I show up and get going.

To register, please click the Pay Pal button below (credit cards accepted) to pay the $29 registration fee:

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Shortly after payment, you’ll be sent a confirmation email from me.

The logistics: Shortly after you enroll, you’ll be sent a confirmation email with a link to the register on our class’ GoToWebinar page. You will attend our class meeting over the phone or online through GoToWebinar.com. As long as you can dial in, you’ll be able to hear the prompts. If you are online, you’ll also be able to see me (via webcam) and the class blackboard.

What if I miss the class meeting? The day after the class meeting, you’ll receive a link to a recording of the meeting, which you can listen to at anytime. The recording includes all the auditory aspects of the class and the Power Point slideshow that plays on the class blackboard.

What if I want to ask a question before I register? Email me at theonestorprods@gmail.com.

Can I pay by check or money order? Yes, email me at theonestorprods@gmail.com for instructions.

Can I get a refund if I change my mind? Yes, you can get a refund if you request one before the class starts on August 16th.

theoWho’s the instructor?  Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006 and also teaches at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. She holds and MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Washington. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg. She lives in Seattle with her family and their cat, Rory. You can follow her on Facebook here and on Twitter @theopnestor. Read testimonials from coaching clients here.

When do we meet? On Sunday August 16, 2015 at 10am Pacific Time.

How do I enroll? To enroll in the class, click on the pink “Buy Now” button for the course to pay either through Pay Pal or with a credit card. After your payment has been received, you’ll receive a course confirmation with further instructions. If you prefer to pay by check or money order, email me at theonestorprods@gmail.com.

Posted in More Stuff for Writers | 1 Comment

Doe Bay Writers’ Retreat with Theo Nestor, October 1-4, 2015

doe bay cafeJoin us for the Doe Bay Writers’ Retreat–three days of classes, writing time, and fun in the autumnal beauty of Orcas Island at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat. During those three days, you will have the opportunity to connect with a small group of focused writers in daily writing classes, a chance to meet socially at least once a day with our group, and lots of time to write in one of Washington State’s most stunning locations. Included in the $395 doe bay morningregistration fee: Open Mic/Pizza Night dinner, a chef-created dinner Friday Night in the cafe, daily classes from retreat host Theo Nestor and guest teachers Nicole Hardy and Natalie Singer-Velush, and the opportunity to go to a yoga class in the Doe Bay Yoga Studio (if you want). See the complete retreat schedule of events here.


Getting to Your “Real Writing” with Theo Pauline Nestor

author photo 4In this class, we will dig deep with a number of very focused prompts designed to take you into “Your Real Writing,” the writing that explores the themes that haunt you, the images you can’t forget, and the material you know you must write about (even if you’ve been assiduously avoiding all of this material for a long, long time). We will also be working on scene writing and openings. Work and discussions will be relevant to both fiction and nonfiction projects. (See instructor bio bel0w).

Writing the Epiphany with Nicole Hardy

Copyright © Peter Koval

Copyright © Peter Koval

Oprah may have made the “aha” moment mainstream, but James Joyce first talked about the epiphany in literature. We’ve all had them: those “sudden spiritual manifestations,” that changed our minds (or our lives).  Joyce believed they are “the most delicate and evanescent of moments,” and that it’s a writer’s duty to record them. So if it’s in our nature to have epiphanies, and our duty to write them well and with care, we’d better figure out how and where to begin. In this workshop, we’ll study models lifted from fiction and memoir, dissect them, discuss them, and try our best to emulate them, with the goal of making our (or our characters’ ) most important moments resonate. (See instructor bio below).

How To Pitch Editors and Submit for Publication with Natalie Singer-Velush

natGetting your articles and essays published in commercial magazines, literary journals or online is a great way to build your platform and gather attention for your upcoming book. But how do you get the interest of an editor who probably receives 10 … 20 … 200 pitches a day? How do you figure out what publication or contest is the right fit for your writing? How do you craft a personalized submission schedule and stick to it?

Good pitches don’t happen automatically, and they don’t come naturally to many of us. Good pitches are learned and practiced. They should reflect the voice and energy of your writing and grab an overworked editor’s attention or a spark a contest judge’s imagination in a unique way. In this session you will hear how to create solid pitches from a real, live, beating-heart editor. You will also get access to a comprehensive list of publications and their submission guidelines plus a fall and winter writing contest calendar, and we’ll begin to craft your upcoming submission. (See instructor bio below).

Plus: Two Yoga Class with Ellie Kozlowski

Ellie will be teaching a basics yoga class Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. All levels welcome! (See instructor bio below).

Register early to hold your spot. Max enrollment: 15

open mikeRegistration fee includes the cost of all retreat classes & activities and the cost of the Thursday night dinner at Doe Bay’s Open Mic Night and Friday night group dinner in the Doe Bay Cafe (including tax and gratuity). Registration fees are refundable only until August 30, 2015; after that they are transferable but not refundable. If you prefer to pay by check, email me at theonestorprods@gmail.com.

Pay the full registration fee of $395 now via Pay Pal (credit cards accepted):

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Pay $200 of the registration fee now, $195 on September 1st** via Pay Pal (credit cards accepted):

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**You will be invoiced for the second payment before Sept 1st.

Coaching Option

Add a one-hour coaching session with Theo Pauline Nestor for $99:

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Add a one-hour coaching session with Natalie Singer-Velush for $99:

(Feel free to bring Natalie your sample pitches for feedback or use your session to get general advice about submitting work to magazines, newspapers, and online sites).

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Add a one-hour coaching session with Nicole Hardy for $99:

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You have three choices for reserving accommodations at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat:

1) SORRY, THIS OPTION HAS SOLD OUT:Pay now via Pay Pal (credit cards accepted) for a bed in a two-bed room in the Retreat House for October 1st through October 4th. If you’d like share a room with a specific person, please sign up on the same day and email me your roommate request at theonestorprods@gmail.com.
Please note that there are only four of these spots in shared bedrooms available. Cost for all 3 nights: $325  total (includes tax and housekeeping gratuity):

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2) Share a cabin with one participant who wants to share her cabin. Read her announcement here: “I am looking for one roomie to share the cabin called Baby Doe? This is a one bedroom with a double bed and also a fold out futon in the living room; a full kitchen, private bath and a wide front porch with a water view. there is a map on the Doe Bay site, if they are not familiar where the location can be seen relative to other lodging.  It is $200 a night, so $600 total for the three nights and I’m willing to pay a greater percentage than ½ in order to have the private room, which means the living room double futon is available for $75 a night or $225 for Oct 1-4.”  (To connect, email Theo at theonestorprods@gmail.com).


3) Reserve a cabin, yurt, a bed in the Doe Bay Resort hostel, or even a campsite (there is a shared kitchen available) independently through Doe Bay Resort. To secure your preferred accommodations, you should make your reservation as soon as you register for the retreat. There is no guarantee of accommodation availability without a reservation. Click here to reserve accommodations.

doe bayThe fine print: The cost of Friday lunch in the Retreat House, Friday night dinner, and Thursday dinner (including gratuity and tax) are included in your registration fees as is the cost of the drop-in yoga class if you wish to attend. Other meals are not included. The cost of alcohol is not included. Doe Bay Cafe hours here. When booking accommodations, please note availability of kitchen. Rental kayaks and massages are available at Doe Bay Resort for additional fees. If possible, book massages before arriving by calling the Doe bay front desk at 360-376-2291. Doe Bay Resort & Retreat has a beautiful outdoor hot tub and sauna that is clothing optional. You can also participate in the retreat and stay offsite if you wish. If you have any questions about the retreat, feel free to email me at theonestorprods@gmail.com.

Getting Thereorcasmap

Doe Bay Resort is located on the west side of Orcas Island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. Find complete directions here.

Link to Washington State Ferries website.

Kenmore Air is currently running a 50 dollar discount on flights from Seattle to Orcas Island for travel booked before May 12th. Doe Bay participants will want to fly into the Rosario Resort. The Doe Bay Resort and Retreat van offer a shuttle for a fee of 10 dollars/person with a two-person minimum. Call the resort to arrange shuttle ahead of time: 360-376-2291

Instructor Bios

WIMD 34Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary luminaries such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg.

virginNicole Hardy’s memoir, Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin,  was a finalist for the 2014 Washington State Book Award. Her other books include the poetry collections This Blonde and Mud Flap Girl’s XX Guide to Facial Profiling–a chapbook of pop-culture inspired sonnets. Her work has appeared in many literary journals and newspapers including The New York Times, and has been adapted for radio and stage productions. Her essay “Single, Female, Mormon, Alone” was noted in 2012’s “Best American Essays.” She earned her MFA at the Bennington College Writing Seminars. Visit her at nicolehardy.org.

parent mapNatalie Singer-Velush is the Managing Editor of ParentMap magazine and www.parentmap.com. A longtime journalist, multi-tasker and mother of two, Natalie has been published in newspapers, magazines, blogs, literary journals and in the 2015 YA anthology Love & Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise, and Intense Tales of Teenage Life. She won the 2013 Alligator Juniper and Pacific Northwest Writers Association contests in creative nonfiction. In between fielding 200 (often crappy) pitches a day, Natalie is at work on a memoir and a MFA from the University of Washington. Follow her on Twitter @Natalie_Writes.


Photo by Sparkfly Photography http://sparkflyphotography.com

Photo by Sparkfly Photography http://sparkflyphotography.com

Ellie Kozlowski has been practicing yoga for the past ten years. Whenever she is consistent in her practice, Ellie feels like a complete person, which is to say: she feels better emotionally, spiritually, and physically. She completed a 200-hour teacher certification program in Raja Yoga while living abroad in South Korea, where she taught until returning to the US. In Seattle, she completed an Advanced Teacher Training program through CorePower Yoga, where she continues to instruct. She loves having the opportunity to share yoga with others and to watch students grow in their practice. Ellie guides students of all levels with compassion, encouragement, and a wide open heart.


Theo Nestor representing Nicole Hardy at the 2014 Washington State Book Awards. Nicole couldn’t be in attendance as she was–yawn!–sailing around the world.

Posted in More Stuff for Writers, writing retreats | Tagged | 2 Comments

Dana Montanari’s 26-Minute Memoir


In 2009 I started a blog called 26-Minute Memoir and started publishing 26-Minute Memoirs–stories that describe the essence of your life written in 26 minutes–from students, friends, Facebook and blog followers. In my book Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too), I encourage readers to write their own 26-Minute Memoirs and send them to me, and now they are! Below you’ll find Dana Montanari’s 26-Minute Memoir. Please feel free to write one of wimd-34your own. You can find instructions and links to other 26-Minute Memoirs here: https://writingismydrink.com/26-minutes/. Please note: I am rather behind on publishing the 26-Minute Memoirs. Average wait time is about six months! If it takes longer, email me and give me a nudge.



26-Minute Memoir

by Dana Montanari

When I was 17, I thought that being a career secretary was a good idea. I would be able use my outstanding typing skills while wearing a pretty business suit and sporting a perfect manicure. First, I’d have to stop biting my nails and lose 10 pounds.

At 24, I had achieved my dream job – only the job title had been updated to “Administrative Assistant.” I fit into the suit but my nails were another matter. Still ragged and torn, I picked at them. They served as an external visual clue of my inner life.

I wanted to look like the other career women at my company, a prestigious financial services firm in the heart of Boston. I wanted perfect hair, white teeth, a runner’s body. I pictured myself jumping off the train, grabbing my espresso and toasted bagel, and sprinting to the office where my day of important business was already in motion.

In the evenings, I spent hours looking through catalogs that came in the daily mail – one well-known lingerie company had suits in the professional section toward the back. The skirts were mini, the jackets even smaller. The message was clear: No sexy woman wore a button-down shirt underneath the suit jacket, just a lacy camisole to give a hint of mysteriousness. Luxurious navy crepe fabric, high heels essential.

The harder I tried to look like the catalog models and the office girls, the more complicated achieving that persona became. I started a diet only to gain a few pounds. I joined a gym. I didn’t go. I had the time but not the discipline.

By 30, I had been promoted into senior leadership roles, somewhat surprisingly because as the importance of my position at work grew, so did my waistline. I worked long hours while drinking gallons of coffee, as all my peers did. I loved the big titles and all the perks that came with them. I felt proud of my external life but my internal one was still the same 17 year-old girl who wanted the pretty, well-fitting suit and the matching heels.

On my 35th birthday, the scale glared the 100 lbs. since graduating from high school.

After leaving my corporate job recently, I began to think about my life’s purpose. What is it? What am I meant to do now? I talked to my best friend about it and told her that maybe it was time to give up my lifelong, mentally consuming guilt around my body weight and my inability to do anything about it. Maybe effective weight loss was too elusive. Maybe the suit doesn’t actually fit. Maybe the heels are too absurdly high.

She told me that in her child development studies, she learned that humans never stop developing and, now, at 44 years old, we are at the period in which we start to understand and feel our pending mortality. I told her I noticed a few friends from middle school who turned up on a Facebook memorial page and how sad that made me. We’re at the halfway point, she said.

Posted in 26-Minute Memoirs, More Stuff for Writers | Tagged , , | 27 Comments

Divorce Is The Worst

Divorce is the Worst_Additions_07Divorce Is The Worst is the book you should bravely buy for your divorcing friend. You could leave it in your friend’s car after you go out for tea with him. You could go by her house with a casserole (divorce is like a death; we need the casseroles), and in the bag with the lasagna, the wine, the bread, the flowers, the dessert, there could be—wait, one more thing at the bottom, here it is—this book, Divorce Is the Worst, for her to read with her kids. You might feel awkward. You will be addressing the fact that the divorce affects her children; you’ll be calling attention to the fact that, indeed, for your friend’s children DIVORCE IS THE WORST. But you’re not really calling attention; your friend’s attention is already there. She knows. He knows. Your friend would like to address the suffering of her children caused by the divorce. She is trying already to do just that, no doubt. But sometimes she/he doesn’t quite know how.

Divorce_Is_The_Worst_38The thing to do—the thing children need during divorce like living things need oxygen—is to fully acknowledge their feelings of loss. And while we divorcing parents want to do anything needed to help our children, we are human, and to be human means not wanting to look at your child in the eyes and see that your choices have caused suffering for your child who you love to the moon and back. To be human means wanting to change the subject when the subject is this hard.

I know this because I am divorced. Our divorce caused my two children to suffer. My decision brought fresh pain into their lives, along with a parenting schedule and little red rolling suitcases that we jokingly and dead seriously have called The Divorce Suitcases since they were purchased by their father nearly 12 years ago. Like most divorced parents, I strove to do the best I could to create an amicable divorce and a brave new life of coparenting. And like most parents, I have a deep aversion to my children’s unhappiness. I have wanted to acknowledge their suffering, but I have also wanted, at times, to pretend it wasn’t there.

Plus, sometimes I didn’t know how to acknowledge it. When I went through the court-ordered “What About the Children?” class that all divorcing parents in Washington state went through in 2004, I was given a reading list, and on it was just one book I could read with my preteen daughter (a very good book called It’s Not the End of the World by the fabulous Judy Blume) and a pretty good book about dinosaurs divorcing I could read with my five year old. The trouble is we are not dinosaurs. We are people, and we needed a book about a real kid going through a real human divorce.

Divorce Is the Worst (Feminist Press) is the book I want to turn back time and read with my five year old on my lap. Divorce Is the Worst by Anastasia Higginbotham (please see my interview with Anastasia below) is a book that allows children to see themselves and their feelings realistically portrayed. One of the beautiful aspects of this book is that the protagonist is not identifiable as any specific race or gender but is an everychild with whom any child can identify. The feelings of displacement and loss and longing and guilt and anger common to the child whose parents are divorcing are brought to life exquisitely in these pages.

I received my advanced copy of the book a month or so ago and I left it out in the living room. My once five-year-old daughter is a high schooler now, but she found the book and read it. She later showed me her favorite pages, which were many.

She said the part when the child falls off the bike was almost unbearably sad.

“Too sad?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “The right amount of sad.”


Theo Nestor: How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out of Divorce Is The Worst?

Anastasia Higginbotham Photo: Joan Beard

Anastasia Higginbotham
Photo: Joan Beard

Anastasia Higginbotham: That whole “It’s for the best” thing bugs me and, one day, the obvious retort: “It’s the worst” popped to mind. The rest of the book came together in batches. There would be the announcement and then a flood of emotional reactions, one after the other, knocking the child actually over onto the ground. I knew I had to walk with the reader through the inevitable changes of divorce and show how feelings get misplaced. So, a zipper that won’t zip feels like the world is ending, but a bloody bicycle crash (which was originally going to last for 6 pages instead of 2) is ho-hum. I wanted the injury of the parents’ separation to show. I wanted that kid broken and still moving forward, trying to understand and cope, the way kids do. And I experimented with different ways of showing how the child contends with the parents’ emotionally loaded reasons for separating—which can easily intrude on a child’s process. I had to make the reasons disappear to allow the child’s mind to get quiet enough to hear their own inner voice instead. But the end I did not know about until I got there. The words came to me and made me cry, and I knew I had done it. I had solved the riddle of what had been hurting me all this time.

Nestor: What inspired the book?

Higginbotham: My parents’ separation when I was 14 was a complete shock and a heartbreak. They didn’t want it to affect us and insisted that it shouldn’t. They actually said those words out loud: “Don’t let this affect you.” Look at me now, right? Almost 30 years later. I wrote and drew my first divorce book for our family when I was 18 and my dad had recently remarried. It was in Dr. Suess cadence and had lots of jokes: “All the relatives when told felt that nothing was worse—it’s like Mary and Joseph were getting divorced!” It was also very forgiving, very focused on the positives. I was still attached to our original family. We were the 5A’s—five kids all named A-names and dressed in matching outfits that our mother made, with this scary dad we adored who wanted us to play piano and be stars. Like the von Trapps. But the divorce did set us all free from those roles, so there was a grace borne out of disgrace. It was like, If Mom and Dad can fail and be disappointing and we all still love them, then WE can fail and be disappointing and they will still love us! But instead of failing, we became brazenly, unapologetically ourselves, and free.

Nestor: Tell us about your creative process. I’m very curious if you write the book, then come up with the illustrations and also how you chose the materials.

Higginbotham: I wrote it and then made the illustrations. At first, the collages were huge, 8×10, collaged from top to bottom, side to side, all the way to the corners. But it was too complicated. I needed to tell it more simply, just a patch of sky and a child whose posture says everything. That’s when I realized I could leave out a LOT of the words I’d written too. I found my way to this square of brown grocery bag paper—which I am in love with for its toughness, its prettiness, and its usefulness. I have never been able to recycle (let alone toss) a clean brown paper bag. It would be like putting a warm coat in the trash, or a hammer. And the fabric is cherished family stuff like my grandparents’ cloth napkins and my son’s first, smallest Batman underpants.

Nestor: How does writing and creating fit into your everyday life?

Divorce_Is_The_Worst_31Higginbotham: Writing and creating are how I internalize everything that is happening. It’s how I convey what I’m learning or trying to learn. Essays are not as satisfying or honest as something with pictures that I wrote by hand. Love letters are very satisfying. It’s how I let people know that I am thinking about them and want to really know them. I made a big poster with my son when we were getting ready to stop nursing. It was of all his older cousins who nursed for a few months or a year or whatever, and then stopped nursing. He drew in all the faces and was on there as longest nurser of them all at almost 3 years old. Other people’s drawings and handwriting are alive to me too. It’s that person, in another form as a scrawl on a post-it, and it makes me love that post-it.

Nestor: What writers and artists inspire you?

Higginbotham: Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Lynda Barry, Grandma Moses, Faith Ringgold, Mattie Lou O’Kelley, Romare Beardon, Matt Groening, Gloria Steinem, Maxine Hong Kingston, Patricia Polacco, Ani Difranco, Tomie dePaola, Mickalene Thomas, Swoon, Mr. Rogers, my friend Sharon Wyse, and my mother.

Nestor: I also really love Lynda Barry, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gloria Steinem! Tell us a little about the series this book will be a part of.

Higginbotham:Divorce is the first topic in my Ordinary Terrible Things series to be published by the Feminist Press, which will also address death, sex, bullying related to perceived gender identity, sexual abuse within the family, and chronic illness compounded by racism. I also want to do adoption and school trauma. Each book will feature a different kid in a different familial arrangement. Each book will zero in on that kid at a time of complete emotional chaos or unraveling and then walk with them through one small piece of that confusion, to get them to that one thread of awareness and understanding of their own worth that makes them want to hold onto the thread for dear life (their soul’s life), as they go on to find another thread, and another, and another, and can start weaving it into something their very own. Crazy looking and scrappy and beautiful and theirs.

Anastasia Higginbotham has worked in New York City for 20 years as a speechwriter for social justice organizations.  Her essays have appeared in Ms., Bitch, Glamour, The Sun, The Women’s Review of Books, and in various anthologies, including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. She is a 2015 Hedgebrook Fellow. Follow Anastasia on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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Spring News from Theo

Hi Readers,IMG_1550

Just a quick post to tell you what I’ve been up to. This year I’ve been teaching two nine-month memoir writing classes–one through Hugo House here in Seattle and the other through the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education department. So I’ve been busy with that, but I also had the opportunity to spend some precious days at Hedgebrook this winter working on a new project. I am very grateful for my time at Hedgebrook, which is a very special residency program here on Washington State’s Whidbey Island. I’ve

The Waterfall cottage at Hedgebrook

The Waterfall cottage at Hedgebrook

started in on a new project (dare I say “book”?), which is too fledgling to talk about yet but that I’m excited about. More about that anon!

More current happenings:

I did this really fun interview with Katie Woodzick’s Theatrical Mustang podcast. If you’re interested in learning more about memoir or are considering taking one of my webinars or yearlong classes, you might find it interesting. You can find out more about the Theatrical Mustang podcast here.

The How to Write a Modern Love Teleseminar on March 22nd with New York Times Modern Love Editor Dan Jones and six Modern Love writers was a huge success. If you missed the live event, you can still purchase the recording via Pay Pal for $79 here: buy now

On Saturday May 9th, I’ll be teaching a Memoir Essentials Class at Hugo House. There are still a few spots open in that class. Learn more and register here.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting my review of an important new book about divorce for children called Divorce Is The Worst (Feminist Press) by Anastasia Higginbotham.

More soon!


Posted in More Stuff for Writers | 2 Comments

Nutgrafs for Memoirs and Personal Essays

widemanA nutgraf is a journalistic term for the paragraph that houses the editorial heart of the story, that tells why the story matters. A nutgraf at the start of your personal essay, memoir, or book proposal is certain to improve your reader’s experience. This nutgraf “trick” is simple when you’re ready to write this summing up paragraph and infuriatingly difficult when you’re not. Often with memoir and personal essays, we must do a lot of exploratory writing before we understand the essence of our stories.

Here’s the exercise I did with my two memoir classes this week to help them produce nutgrafs, and their results were fantastic. I hope it works as well for you. 1. Understand that every work of literature has both a “situation” and a “story.” A situation is your subject matter (You got a divorce, you lived in Thailand, you had cancer, etc) and the story is, at essence, the meaning you made, your particular take on the experience, or possibly the lesson you learned. This idea is not mine; it’s from Vivian Gornick’s excellent book The Situation and the Story, in which she wrote: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” My students would be happier if I stopped reciting this quote, I’m sure. However, I’m convinced that this quote contains the secret to good writing. 2. Read the following paragraph from the first page of John Edgar Wideman’s brilliant book Brothers and Keepers, picking out which lines identify the “situation” and which identify the “story”:

I heard the news first in a phone call from my mother. My youngest brother, Robby, and two of his friends had killed a man during a hold up. Robby was a fugitive, wanted for armed robbery and murder. The police were hunting him, and his crime had given the cops license to kill. The distance I’d put between my brother’s world and mine suddenly collapsed. The two thousand miles between Laramie, Wyoming and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my years of willed ignorance, of flight and hiding, had not changed a simple truth: I could never run fast enough or far enough. Robby was inside me. Wherever he was running for his life, he carried part of me with him.

3. Once you recognize how Wideman is telling us the situation in the first three sentences and summarizing the story in the next four, try copying his format. In dramatic terms (notice how he uses the phrase “license to kill”), describe your situation in three or fewer sentences. Then, in three or four sentences, say what you derived from going through that situation, as Wideman does. It is perfectly okay to learn how to write by copying the structure of the masters. The content will be very much your own.

4. If you were unable to do Step 3 because you couldn’t say what you derived from the experience, you are in good company. Keep exploring your topic, asking yourself, “How was I changed by this experience?” Eventually, you will either come up with the story or drop this book/essay idea in order to write about a situation for which the meaning is clearer to you.

If you were able to write a nutgraf like Wideman’s, find a home for it somewhere near the beginning of your book or essay.

Want to learn more from me about writing personal essays and memoir? You can find information about my coaching and webinars here and about my upcoming teleseminar How to Write a Modern Love with Modern Love Editor Daniel Jones here.

Posted in More Stuff for Writers | 9 Comments

How to Write a Modern Love (That Stands a Chance)

Update November 22, 2022: Hello Readers! In 2015 I hosted the How to Write a Modern Love Teleseminar with guest speakers New York Times Modern Love Editor Dan Jones and six Modern Love writers (You can see the original post about this event below). Just this week, I launched a new course that walks writers through every step of writing a Modern Love essay from idea generating to writing and structuring and revising to submitting. Learn more about the course here. Questions: Email me at theo@theonestor.com.

Here’s what one participant had to say about the 2015 How to Write a Modern Love Teleseminar: “This was one of the most wonderful, insightful, and useful seminars I’ve attended in a long time. Thank you so much for doing it and to Dan and all the writers who share their knowledge and experience and tips.”

The Modern Love column with its stories of love, loss, and redemption has become a staple of our Sunday reading over the last decade. We share our favorites on social media and keep bits of wisdom from those oh-so-personal essays in our collective memory. And a great number of us writers dream of seeing our stories spread out there in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times right beside one of those lovely signature Brian Rea illustrations. In fact, 5000 plus essayists each year send their work into Modern Love. Yet, there are only 52 weeks in a year, and only just that many essays can make it into the column that has turned many a writer into an author with a book contract. So, what is it that makes a potential Modern Love essay jump out of the slush pile and into print? This is the topic of my upcoming teleseminar, “How to Write a Modern Love,” in which I will be interviewing Dan Jones and six Modern Love alums on this topic and giving my own insights as well.

Thanks to a bit of luck, an essay of mine was selected before the first Modern Love column went live back in November 2004, and so I avoided the heavy competition and can’t say that my own experience with writing my essay has been especially helpful in guiding others. But since then, I’ve read many essays of Modern Love aspirants who didn’t make the cut. I’ve also had several students who’ve had their essays published in Modern Love, and so I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about what makes a great Modern Love essay and how to write one that will catch the eye of the column’s editor, Daniel Jones.

During the How to Write a Modern Love teleseminar, I will be offering writing advice on how to take a Modern Love story from idea to submission and insights into trends in the column. Modern Love Editor Daniel Jones will be on the call sharing secrets of the editorial process and advice for writers, and Modern Love alumni Mandy Len Catron, Veronica Chambers, K.K. Goldberg, E. J. Levy, Peter Mountford, and Margot Page (see full bios below) will all do cameo guest spots in which they will share their experience and insights. The How to Write a Modern Love teleseminar will be held on Sunday, March 22nd from 1pm to 3pm Pacific Time.

During this two hour seminar, I will talk about some of the commonalities of successful Modern Love essays and tips for writing an essay that “feels like a Modern Love.” I will bring six Modern Love essayists for short 5-10 minute guest spots in which they will talk about some of what worked for them and the following techniques for writing a successful essay:

-Making the connection between your life experience and a timely topic

-Simplifying a complex story

-Making sure the modern is in your Modern Love

-Recognizing the cadence common to the Modern Love essay

-Using a central metaphor to give your story coherence (without, you know, extending the metaphor too far)

-Finding an angle or hook for your Modern Love essay

-Allowing yourself to be vulnerable on the page (without, um, TMI )

-Making the most of the 1600 words, writing a great lede, and following up with a well paced story

-Creating a satisfying ending (even when your experience was less than satifying)

-Discovering extraordinary Modern Love stories in your ordinary life

Want to read some insights into the Modern Love column while you’re waiting for March 22nd? Check out this recent essay by Daniel Jones.

theoHow to Write a Modern Love teleseminar host: Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006 and also teaches at Hugo House in Seattle. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by writers such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg. You can follow her on Facebook here and on Twitter @theopnestor. You can read her Modern Love essay here.

Guest Speakers:

dan jonesDaniel Jones has edited the Modern Love column in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times since its inception in 2004. His books include the recent bestseller Love Illuminated: dans bookExploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers), two essay anthologies—“Modern Love” and “The Bastard on the Couch”—and a novel, “After Lucy,” which was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife, writer Cathi Hanauer, and their two children.

mandy len catronMandy Len Catron is a writer living in Vancouver, BC. She teaches English and Creative Nonfiction at the University of British Columbia. Her Modern Love column, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” was the most viewed and most shared New York Times article for January 2015. She’s currently working on an essay collection about the dangers of love stories. For more, check out her website  and her blog.

veronica chambersVeronica Chambers is a prolific author, best veronica bookknown for her critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl and the New York Times Bestseller Yes Chef, which she co-authored with chef Marcus Samuelsson. In 2012 Yes Chef won the prestigious James Beard literary award and was a NY Times bestseller. In 2014, she co-authored a second bestseller, Everybody’s Got Something with GMA host, Robin Roberts. Her Modern Love essay “Loved and Lost?” It’s O.K., Especially if You Win” was published in the New York Times in February 2006.

kathrynA MacDowell Fellow and MFA graduate, K.K. Goldberg’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, and in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including The Sun, The Gettysburg Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2009. Her book, The Doctor and The Stork: A Memoir of Modern Medical Babymaking, is forthcoming in October 2015. Her 2011 Modern Love piece, “A Little Lint and Suddenly You’re Bridezilla,” is about how a lawsuit over her destroyed wedding dress brought her family together almost more than the wedding itself.

EJ Levy head shot 1E. J. Levy’s writing has appeared in Paris Review, Best American Essays, and received a Pushcart Prize. Her debut story collection, Love, In Theory, Love In Theory coverwon a 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award and 2014 GLCA New Writers Award (previously awarded to Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, and Mary Szybist for their first books); she teaches in Colorado. Her Modern Love essay “After a Parent’s Death, a Rush of Courage” appeared in the New York Times in November 2013.

Peter Headshot_Less Close_2013Peter Mountford’s debut novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism won a 2012 Washingtondismal jpeg State Book Award, and his second novel The Dismal Science, released last year, was a NYT editor’s choice. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Best New American Voices 2008, Granta, Southern Review, and elsewhere. He is on faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program. His Modern Love essay, “How I Came to Live in the Chair Emporium” appeared in the New York Times on January 15, 2015.

margot page - author photo b-wMargot Page’s work has recently appeared PagePI_FrontCoverin The New York Times, Brain, Child and the Huffington Post. She is the creator of the popular Dear Drudgery column on the Brain, Mother blog and the author of a memoir, Paradise Imperfect: An American family moves to the Costa Rican mountains (11/13, Yellow House Press). Margot lives, works and writes in Seattle. Her Modern Love column, “Labels of Married Life, in a New Light,” was a married heterosexual’s take on how marriage equality enriched her own vision of marriage roles.

Frequently Asked Questions About my Teleseminars and Webinars:

How does it work? At 1pm Pacific on March 22nd, you will call in or log in to the GoToMeeting conference call number that you will be emailed after payment.

The logistics: Shortly after you pay via Pay Pal, you’ll be sent a confirmation email with a link to the register on the telesminar’ s GoToMeeting page. You will attend the teleseminar over the phone or online through GoToMeeting.com. As long as you can dial in, you’ll be able to hear the teleseminar. If you miss the class (or want to listen to it again), the recording will be available for you to listen to at your convenience.

What if I miss the class? The day after the teleseminar, you’ll receive a link to a recording of the teleseminar, which you can listen to at anytime over the next year.

What if I want to ask a question before I register? Email me at theonestorprods@gmail.com.

Can I pay by check or money order? Yes, email me at theonestorprods@gmail.com for instructions.

Posted in Modern Love, More Stuff for Writers, teleseminars, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Patricia Carlisle’s 26-Minute Memoir

Hi Readers,26

In 2009 I started a blog called 26-Minute Memoir and started publishing 26-Minute Memoirs–stories that describe the essence of your life written in 26 minutes–from students, friends, Facebook and blog followers. In my book Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too), I encourage readers to write their own 26-Minute Memoirs and send them to me, and now they are! Below you’ll find Patricia Carlisle’s 26-Minute Memoir. Please feel free to write one of wimd-34your own. You can find instructions and links to other 26-Minute Memoirs here: https://writingismydrink.com/26-minutes/


Patricia Carlisle’s 26-Minute Memoir

Dancing: it lasted less than 26 minutes

  by Patricia Carlisle

The music flowed out of the open car door. The night was starry and clear, the dry eastern Washington high desert waved in the moonlight. And we danced. Right there in the middle of the dirt road. Belly to belly, cheek to cheek. We danced.

The sultry voice of Anita Baker was reminding us of the purpose to our journey. This was it. Dancing under the stars in a world huger than huge and we were the only ones dancing. Our shadow was long and thinner than we. The bright moon was at one-third mast, outlining the low and distant hills to the east, not quite reaching the dark Cascades to the west. Our shadow pointed toward home, toward the mountain pass and we danced toward the light.

It was 25 years ago, or more. I do not recall why we were there or exactly when it was. I only remember the warm air and the hot cheeks. I only remember that the music pulsed deeply, slowing my heartbeat, commanding me to move with it, though I knew no steps. I am no dancer. Mostly our sneakers shuffled in the gravel and we swayed in the light breeze. This was no tango, no waltz, just a vague and slow two-step.

The moon applied the brakes to the everyday, stopped us in our tracks. The city life, where the music was dissonant and loud, didn’t make me want to dance. In that life the car door never stood open asking me to stand in the road. We never danced in the living room or in clubs. Our moments were spent walking from the closed car door to the next door of duty.

We dared a car to come by and interrupt and none came. So we danced, slow and just a bit awkward, and not giving a damn that we were too nerdy to be this romantic. Two lovers, partners, friends breathing the night air, asking it to refresh us. Letting the music set our minds free.

It only lasted a few minutes, that first song and then the next, but the shadow of our entwined arms still reaches across the mountains. We don’t dance much, never did. So when I was gathering the recycling and Anita Baker’s voice came out of the iPad, I was there, again, in the road, dancing cheek to cheek. And the friend, the partner, the lover, now wife, will be home soon and it will be time for lunch.

Posted in 26-Minute Memoirs | 1 Comment

Jan Child’s 26-Minute Memoir

Hi Readers,26

In 2009 I started a blog called 26-Minute Memoir and started publishing 26-Minute Memoirs–stories that describe the essence of your life written in 26 minutes–from students, friends, Facebook and blog followers. In my book Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too), I encourage readers to write their own 26-Minute Memoirs and send them to me, and now they are! Below you’ll find Jan Child’s 26-Minute Memoir. Please feel free to write one of wimd-34your own. You can find instructions and links to other 26-Minute Memoirs here: https://writingismydrink.com/26-minutes/

26-Minute Memoir

by Jan Child

I drag my feet up the stairs to my study. It’s the trepidation and anxiety before you begin writing that makes me want to Stop. Before. I. Begin. I’ve got you under my skin. Words exist, are trapped under my skin. Writhing beings itchy for the light.

While I feed the animals in the morning, I imagine these brilliant words full of vim and dash that will find the light and appear on the page as soon as I get upstairs. I’m doing the regular circuit collecting bowls, cleaning them and refilling them with food. Max and Rupert wind around my feet, head butting me as I work, trying to wear the skin off my legs. To let the words out?

My world is full of potential during this time. I imagine everything unfolding perfectly, the universe in alignment with my wishes, powerful unseen forces at my bidding. I stand on a cliff in a storm, all cheekbones and eyelashes. Long hair and gown billowing out behind me in the darkness, and I raise my hands up to the clouds to make a connection. I let the lightning sear my fingertips and fill me with the inspired words I can’t make up on my own.

By the time the animals are fed, the tea is made, I’ve showered and dressed for the day – bright colors to keep me pepped up and perky – the words have already begun to retreat. I’m no longer on a cliff. I’m on the stairs in my house. And like a film running backwards, I see the clouds of inspiration disappear underneath the closed door of my study where they’d been billowing out from before, calling me like a siren when my fingers were far away from the keyboard.

I can feel the inner screams building. The sounds of words suffocating. I wonder if this is going to be another day of denial, of putting my voice aside. Please. I must speak. I must get the words out. But the tale is dark and sad, moribund, underneath the smiles. Will anyone believe me? And my sister is not the story. She has been, but there were five of us, and the rest of us have been silenced for too long. I want to speak for them.

And so the banter goes. Back and forth. Back and forth. Fear and bravery are not easy bedfellows. I weigh up the consequences of speaking with the consequences of keeping mum, and the cold fist of fear clenches my heart and stops my hands from doing what they need to be doing.

I’ve lived on the verge of promise my whole life. Being brilliant on other people’s paychecks, keeping the spotlight shining on faces other than my own. And now the baby is getting older. The cloak of invisibility is descending before she’s had a chance to get the words out! The inner screams get louder. Words squirming and writhing.

Will there be a breaking point? A point at which I stop and say enough is enough? I wonder as I scratch at my leg. Will I finally get the words out instead of hiding in the shadows, thinking I’m safe there?

All I want is to be able to hold my own at a dinner or brunch, when people ask that killer question, “What do you do?”, I’ll have answers that I’m proud of. I’m a writer. I have a publisher. I know how to put great words on the page that people I don’t know appreciate. I can avoid working in a cubicle and the ignominy of working with people full of metallic ambition that sears hearts and makes my teeth hum. I put food on the table with my words.

When the golden moments come and I get to the page in time, the words begin tumbling out. I catch thoughts in nets like butterflies. But I notice they’re not as syrup rich as they’d been in my head. Keep. Going. You can always edit later. Edit? Did someone say edit, and my hand drifts upwards over the lines of words sitting there like little children waiting to be saved or sacrificed. The pen hovers as I read and analyze. Analyze. Analzye. Always analyzing.

Give yourself a break. Keep going. But the golden thread that extends from that cloud of creativity that stalled out overhead this morning is unraveling, getting thinner by the second, gnawed away by my fervent editor’s pen, and then a new thought occurs to me. I need to check my email, I’ll just check Facebook, I’ll just check a few princess blogs and see how Catherine is doing, what she’s wearing, if she’s still struggling with morning sickness. It’s 11am when I next pull myself up out of the pit-of-no-words. The day is over, at least the writing part I think because I know I’m much better first thing in the morning. There’s only an hour of morning left, and we all know that’s not enough time to write anything of note.

The golden thread retracts, and even though the internet yawns in front of me, I am alone, brittle and lifeless, no animation. A ghostly promise of what I could have been. My only hope is for a parallel universe and while I’m not writing here, I’m working my ass off over there.


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